SPOILIN’ THE BROTH
Neighbor Grover sez his wife was only a whiskey maker, but he loved her still. M y favorite crime novelist, Elmore Leonard, a master of dialogue, died last week at 87. His books were written from his characters’ points of view, and his characters were often brilliantly pathetic, second-rate crooks, small-time shylocks that Leonard cleverly coaxed his readers to sorta’ pull for.
Leonard's much-admired “10 Rules for Good Writing” accompanied virtually every obituary and tribute to his prolific career.
They follow again here, because some reminded me of basic instruction I received during Journalism 201 and 202, the nuts-and-bolts classes called “sophomore reporting,” back in the day at North Texas State College, now UNT.
1. Never open a book with weather.
2. Avoid prologues.
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.
5. Keep your exclamat ion points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
“If it sounds like writing,” he said, “I rewrite it.”
And how he developed characters without the detailed descriptions he disdained: con artists, gangsters, hit men, petty thieves. Here are quotes from some of his characters:
“I spent most of my dough on booze, broads, and boats, and the rest I wasted.”—La Brava
“I always felt, you don’t have a good time doin’ crime, you may as well find a job.”— Raylan
“When you’re really cute that’s all you have to be, you make a career out of it. Someone asks you what you do, you say, ‘Nothing. I’m cute’.”—Killshot
“Man like him don’t go to the toilet he don’t have a piece on him.”—Be Cool
Leonard received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American chapter of PEN in 2009 which stated his books “are not only classics of the crime genre, but some of the best writing of the last half-century.”
And just last year the National Book Foundation presented him its award for distinguished contribution to American letters. He began as a writer of westerns, his Hombre wa s made into a movie starring Paul Newman in 1967, and his 3:10 to Yuma was made into a movie with Glenn Ford in 1957 and again in 2007 with Russell Crowe.
Many of his crime novels were made into movies, among them The Big Bounce, Justified, Get Shorty, Be Cool, Out of Sight, Jackie Brown (based on his Rum Punch), and Life of Crime (based on his The Switch).
The best of these movies were the ones where Hollywood didn’t tamper with Mr. Leonard’s skill.